Pool Cue Archery Bow Cello from 1981, is one of a large group of Ken Butler's pieces now on display in Art or Sound, a survey that spans four centuries of musical instruments and curiosities.
The mere fact that the esteemed founder of "Arte Povera" Germano Celant has chosen to put Ken Butler in any show is a cause for comment, never mind what the show is about. As it happens this is not exactly an Arte Povera show, but rather an historical survey of musical objects from over the course of four centuries. It is, however, a bit of a curatorial "spill" in the manner of Arte Povera. Very old decorative artifacts and sundry pieces of Weimar whimsy are rolled out into the company of objects from the historical avant-garde.
Antiques are pressed into the service of conceptual art, and all the objects in the show concern "the relationship between art and sound" or the "iconic aspect" of musical instruments. Never mind the context or the century of origin of anything, there is a theory that carries them all in a Prada handbag, whose foundation is sponsoring the show. So it is a good chance to see some beautiful and interesting objects from all over the map, and some really dull moves from the 1970s as well.
Adolphe Sax, 1866–84, brass
But I will say this, Ken Butler's "hybrid visions" stand up to an Adolphe Sax trumpet or a dazzling old street organ, as much as they stand out against the stylistic uniformity of most of the avant-garde and postmodern representation here. Butler really is a new species in the art world, and in Venice it shows. His work has old world charm, and it looks and feels snappy in the generally mortified acres of assemblage art of our times.
I'll venture that Butler's work is the lynchpin of this show. His work is historically sensitive to the older artifacts. It responds to the antique functional objects as well as it does to the newer and patently art historical pieces. And what's more, Ken Butler's instruments are thoroughly and all about the confluence of objects and sounds.
Musical Chairs, roto-picker (for 8 chairs and channels) concept drawing 23.5 x 18 in. 2005. See enhanced album of these drawings.
Rifle Cello, exhibited at Test-Site in Williamsburg, early 1990s
Art or Sound, June 7 - November 3, 2014